Diving into Opera, and Surfacing with Joy (part II)

Written by Jason Victor Serinus

Continued from Part I

The History of Opera

Although the score to what is reputed to be the first opera, Jacopo Peri’s Dafne (1598), has been lost, the oldest frequently performed opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), is very much with us. It and Monteverdi’s two late surviving operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642), continue to command attention because they are so beautifully composed and emotionally expressive.

During the century and a half in which baroque opera flourished, a plethora of composers, including Handel, Cavalli, and Porpora, wrote countless operas of varying quality. Only in the past 50 years or so have we in so-called modern time been able to fully appreciate what people raved about in the baroque era.

Thanks to the early music movement, a host of musicians now perform on period instruments, both originals and copies. Baroque violinists, for example, use gut strings, and hold their bows differently than is expected when people perform music from later periods. The sound is very, very different, both in weight and timbre.

Period practice scholarship has revealed that, in earlier centuries, people performed at lower pitch, in smaller spaces, and with less vibrato than is common to 19th century Italian opera. Composers of the baroque, classical (e.g. Haydn and Mozart) and bel canto (Bellini and Donizetti) eras expected singers and musicians to embellish the vocal line, sometimes liberally, when the melody was repeated.

In addition, the bass line and its harmonic counterpart in much early music was never fully written out, so confident were the composers that performers would improvise. If you want to hear the antecedent of 20th and 21st century jazz improvisation, check out historically informed early music performance, and compare what you hear to what’s written in the score. Comparing live performances by the same artists can reveal countless differences from performance to performance, sometimes just days apart.

Another major contributor to today’s early music renaissance is the ascendancy of the countertenor. Baroque composers often wrote their leading roles either for castrati – men who were intentionally or accidentally castrated before puberty, and who retained the high voices of boy sopranos and altos in manhood – or for countertenors – men who sing in falsetto. While trained castrati no longer exist, thank God, we now have a host of countertenors who can provide a good approximation of how their roles actually sounded in baroque times. Some of these countertenors have voices so large that they can be heard throughout the Metropolitan Opera, which can accommodate up to 3835 seated patrons plus 195 standees.

While only some baroque opera librettos are credible – Handel’s Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare in Egitto, 1724)

is one – the music and character painting are frequently remarkable. Handel did more than write good tunes to stories of nymphs, sorcerers, and flying machines; he also wrote convincing characterizations. For proof, watch the video of the remarkable, historically-informed production of Julius Caesar I was privileged to see in Salzburg a few summers ago. If you want to hear an exquisite countertenor in superb voice, listen to the marvelous Philippe Jaroussky (Sesto) sing “Cara speme, questo core,” which you can click on at 00:59:15. Then revel in virtually anything mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli (Cleopatra) sings, and marvel at the beauty of her voice and nigh perfect technique. Bartoli’s aria “Tu la mia stella sei,” which follows Jaroussky’s, should be enough to convince you of her greatness.

Opera’s Classical Period

While it’s certainly not my intention to write the world’s grandest introduction to opera in 3500 words or less, no discussion would be complete without touching briefly on the three major periods of opera that, together with contemporary opera, provide the bulk of repertoire heard in the world’s great opera houses. After baroque opera came the classical period, which was dominated by Austria’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Certainly four of Mozart’s five final operas – Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro – 1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (Women are like that -1790), and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute – 1791) – exhibit a nigh-perfect welding of words and music.

You can read my discussion of a recent complete recording of the opera some call the most perfect opera ever composed, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, here. Opinions differ of course. I consider the music of Die Zauberflöte sublime, while my husband, who has sung opera, considers it boring.

I hear every note of soprano Tiana Lemnitz’ admittedly historically inaccurate performance of Pamina’s despairing aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s”, over and over in my head. Ditto her performance of “Dove sono”, one of the Countess’ two great arias from Le nozze di Figaro. Others consider Lemnitz’s Nazi affiliation, or that of another Mozartian great, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf  – here singing the Countess’ other great aria, “Porgi amor” – at least as significant as their artistic accomplishments. Thus doth the world turn.

Bel Canto, Romance, and Verismo

After the era of Mozart, Beethoven and others came the bel canto romantic period dominated by the florid writing of Donizetti,

(1797-1848) Bellini (1801-1835),

and Rossini (1798-1868).

All three composers demanded supreme breath control and agility, as well as the ability to float a long line with consummate ease.

Bel canto depends upon tiny changes in tempo and dynamics, and concomitant changes in tone color, for its success, while the grand romantic operas of Verdi (1813-1901),

Wagner (1813-1883),

Bizet (1838-1875), Massenet (1842-1912) and others call for grand gestures and maximum volume. Of course, the greatest singers of romantic opera did not exactly turn their backs on bel canto skills, as can be heard in the above link to soprano Leontyne Price’s farewell performance as Verdi’s Aida, and the extraordinary soprano Lotte Lehmann’s nuanced interpretation of Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre.

The turn of the century also saw the flowering of the Italian verismo school of romantic opera. Supposedly offering slice-of-life realism complete with heightened drama, passionate romance and a fair amount of blood, verismo composers tended to concern themselves with the lives of common people rather than noblemen. The line between romantic opera and so-called post-romantic verismo, however, is rather sketchy. For example, Puccini’s (1858-1924) Il tabarro and Tosca are often considered verismo, but his Madama Butterfly and especially Turandot usually aren’t. For a wonderful live performance of Madama Butterfly’s famous aria, “Un bel di,” see this.

Not to be missed are two of the great 12-tone operas of the early 20th century, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1922) and Lulu (1928-1935). Not only do they deal with social depravity, prostitution, political corruption, and the like, but their musical vocabulary also dispenses with the prettiness and harmonic resolution of earlier periods to forge a truthfulness and beauty all its own. People do not always lie, steal, kill, and die prettily.

Musical history, of course, does not move in a straight line. At the same time Berg, Schoenberg, and others were writing 12-tone music, Richard Strauss (whose music I love) went from the experimentation of Salome

and Elektra

to the romanticism of Der Rosenkavalier

and Ariadne auf Naxos.

Many of today’s young composers are, in fact, continuing the tonal tradition of early eras while writing innovative music that speaks to our time.

Contemporary Performance

One of the biggest tensions in contemporary opera performance is between what is most important, the production or the singing and music. While in the 19th and early 20th centuries, singers and conductors ruled, far more attention these days is often lavished instead on the production and drama. This is reflected in 800-word opera critiques that devote 600 words to the production and costumes, with just enough space left to devote one or two adjectives to each of the major singers, and lump everyone else into a line or two. As Aidan Lang, General Director of Seattle Opera, said to me last year, it’s much easier for a critic to describe what a production looks like than to describe in detail a singer’s voice and artistry.

Thus we have the era of the opera DVD and Blu-ray, where productions with second-rate or substandard singing get issued solely because of the visuals. An entire school of direction and production, called regietheater, seems more obsessed with outrageousness than musical artistry.

At the same time, because our TV-dominated /mass media age has become increasingly concerned with visuals, complete opera recordings on CD are diminishing. Once you spend time listening to great singing, it becomes easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes, the best thing to do is close your eyes and focus on the sound. A review I recently read of a production of Wagner’s opera, Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), that is only available on DVD and Blu-ray suggests that if you ignore the visuals, the musical performance itself can hold its own against any of the great audio-only recordings of the ‘50s, ‘60s and beyond.

For those just starting out, it is my hope that this little intro has helped you find a way in to the world of opera. May your days and nights be filled with music that touches your heart and illumines your being with the deepest truths that the human experience has to offer.

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